Love-Sick or Dope-Sick? Codependency on the Love Drug

Often, I liken toxic relationships to drug addiction. This is because they have very similar relationship characteristics. Both involve codependence/codependency. For the purpose of this article, codependence is defined as being excessively, often unhealthily reliant on another for emotional and psychological support. In the beginning, it hooks you. Much like a drug, the initial encounter involves a euphoric “high”. There’s an immediate increase in Dopamine that makes us feel really good. Also present is a precursor that starts making Adrenaline because we are excited about the encounter with a tempting stranger. Finally, there is a flood of positive feedback from the object of our attraction, usually in the form of compliments, similarity, acceptance, and understanding. All of this positive feedback shuts down the part of the brain responsible for rational decision making. See where this is going?

This “high” can last for hours, days, or even weeks as long as there is no negative interaction. But once it stops, it does so abruptly that there is an immediate negative effect, almost a “crash” from flying so high and falling so quickly. As a result, all of our efforts become about getting back to that beautiful place. At this point, most of us are understanding, especially if our new love interest justifies what happened and explains their behavior. The cause usually has to do with a misunderstanding or vulnerability. And who doesn’t love someone open and honest about vulnerability and the fear of being hurt? Remember that rational part of the brain is already on vacation!

By the second cycle of flying high and crashing, we become more aware of our actions and ways in which we have offended or inadvertently hurt this person we have already professed love to (yes, that fast). So again, we apologize, assure, and accommodate in an effort to chase that high. Unknowingly, we can no longer get back to the initial high. With each incident, we become a bit more self-aware and slightly more guarded, all to avoid the crash but also keeping us from enjoying that epic feeling we felt when all was innocent and exciting. Since we are still at the phase where there are more good encounters than bad, we forgive, forget, and forgo negative interactions and behaviors in order to “maintain the high.” Unfortunately, it becomes increasingly more difficult to reach that euphoric feeling and keep it for any length of time. This is where the true addiction occurs.

In this stage, instead of chasing a high, our behaviors shift to avoiding negative effects. Because we have bought into the beliefs and behaviors of our lover, we usually diminish ourselves as a means to not be the source of their distress or ridicule. The hope for the high that we barely remember, and a lack of healthy habits used with this person, leaves us in a stuck cycle of analyzing emotions, avoiding conflict, and care-taking, leaving little for ourselves. Just as a person with a substance dependence, we now attempt to “use” our lover more to avoid being “sick” (depressed and diminished) than for any high. Finally, we get to a point where we can predict what will set them off but uncertain what will actually help. This unpredictability, just as with a gambler’s addiction, the random, unpredictable moment of “high” or happiness in the relationship, gives us hope that things can be great again. A common saying in the codependence community is “relapse begins in the mind first.” As long as there is hope, there will be relapse.

ou or someone you care for are suffering from codependence on a toxic relationship or recovering from narcissistic abuse and need help, please contact a mental health provider specializing in codependence or join our Relationship Recovery community and workshops at

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